Pentax K-7 Review
The Pentax K-7, released in the first half of 2009, is the most advanced auto focus SLR Pentax has released in the film or digital era. The Pentax K-7 is a rugged, magnesium-shelled, weather-sealed camera, featuring a 14.6MP CMOS sensor, large 3" LCD screen with 921,000 pixels. The Pentax K-7 is similar to the Canon EOS 50D and the Nikon D300S. Like all Pentax DSLRs, the K7 features sensor-shift body-based image stabilization (up to 4 stops).
Out of the box, the K-7 is noticeably smaller than the K10/20D, and it’s far more angular in design. This is Pentax’s first radically different camera since the K10D design, and there is plenty to discover.
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Construction and Control Layout
The control layout is significantly different than previous Pentax cameras. The K-7 menu system shares some similarities with the K-m/K2000, but I’ve never used that camera. The hard button layout on the K-7 is a first. While I appreciate the easy access to the controls, I’m not sure the elimination of the Fn button is entirely good. I’ve already noticed that it is fairly easy to enter the Fn menu accidentally. I’m not certain access to the controls will be vastly faster but time will tell if the annoyance of accidentally accessing features is offset by speed of access when you need it. Also, as another casualty of the missing Fn button, now to change auto focus points in select mode you need to press the OK button each time, adding an additional step. However, with firmware 1.1 and above, which was released following the start of this review, Pentax has fixed the issue. Now in the custom menus there is an option for focus point priority in AF-select mode. By leaving the camera on AF-select mode, you essentially turn the OK button into a Fn button. In all other AF modes (center point and auto select) the K-7 has one touch access to the Fn menus. The only downside to this is that you can accidentally change focus points. However, since the focus points have a confirmation in the viewfinder and on the LCD, this should not be a major problem.
New to this level of Pentax DSLR is an adjustable “live” info menu. On previous models, the info button just brought up the current settings—on the K-7, the info button can be used to quickly change many settings without menu diving. These include: lens corrections, highlight and shadow corrections, ISO settings, file format and compression, Shake Reduction, and more.
Browsing the six-page, 37-function custom menu system in the camera, I noticed right away that the Pentax K-7 eliminates one of the fears I had. The IR remote isn’t just a press and fire remote, but it can be set to trigger the shutter to open on the first press, and close on the second while in bulb mode. Coupled with the auto bracket mode and interval timer carried over from the K20D, this should eliminate the need to use the cable release port very often. It should now be possible via the menu to shoot almost any scene without the need to use a wired cable release. A distinct advantage of this is no more cable release to dangle and keep track of while the wind is blowing, and no more open port doors for long exposures. A quick test with my Pentax Wireless Remote C confirms that I may no longer need to use the cable release port, making the whole plug disappointment largely a moot issue.
The K-7 is approximately 20% smaller than similar cameras (Canon 50D, Nikon D300), and it is 2oz lighter than the K20D, even thought it’s more solidly built. It’s also almost a half pound lighter than the Nikon D300s when fully loaded.
I used the K-7 in temperatures as low as 10F, below the “cold proof” rating of the camera, wearing light glove liners with no handling issues. Like the *ist D or K100 series the K-7 might be more difficult than a larger camera to handle in weather cold enough to require thick gloves. However, the control layout is mostly well thought out, and people with average to slightly large hands should have no problems operating the K-7 efficiently after acclimating to the new control layout and smaller body.
Pentax made a number of changes to the inner workings of the K-7 as well compared to previous models. The first thing you notice is the tabbed menu system. Rather than scrolling pages up and down, the menu system uses tabs, essentially scrolling pages side to side like a book rather than a web page. I am not sure if this is faster, but it is arguably easier to keep track of where you are once you become familiar with the system.
The menu system is fairly complex, probably 3X the size of the K10 and 2X the K20D systems. This is partly because of video features, but also because of the many new features that I’ll cover lightly in this section.
- Like the K20D, the K-7 has a text size adjustment. Unlike the K20D, it also allows you to set menu color themes. In some ways this is more than eye candy, some schemes seem easier to read.
- The K20D had post capture effects, as did the K10D on converted files, but the K-7 has digital filters that are applied at the time of capture to JPEGs, although the process is essentially the same. For instance, if you set an effect and then turn the digital DOF switch to take a sample image, you can either save that image, adjust the effect or change effects. If you simply press the shutter the image is written to the card and cannot be undone. Those without a lot of desire for Photoshop, or without the software will appreciate these features, most photographers with more experience at digital capture, or who prefer RAW will probably dismiss them. One thing I like is the ability to go back into the menu and reapply your last 20 filter settings since almost every filter has adjustable parameters. Some filters do look interesting and could be fun for photographers in a creative rut.
- A recurring theme while working with the menu system is that a great deal of the settings work with JPEG only capture, which means a lot of the menu system is continually grayed out if you are shooting RAW or RAW.
Interesting new filters:
- Sunset white balance: a feature largely aimed at JPEG shooters since if you are shooting RAW you can always losslessly alter the WB in RAW conversion. However, if you are relying on the histogram for exposure accuracy, often using the correct white balance at the start can yield more accurate exposures because certain channels will be clipped when the white balance is distinctly incorrect.
- Toy camera setting: does a decent job at recreating Lomography effects. Lomography is popular enough that many people will find this filter someone useful.
- Many of the K20D filter features are present, but most with more customization available, including entirely custom filters.
- HDR mode: (only works in JPEG) is only 3 shots, does not work in RAW+ JPEG mode either. Honestly, the point of HDR is to get extreme dynamic range, and shooting 3 8-bit JPEGs isn’t going quite get you there. I see it possibly being used for contrasty lighting where a snap shot would usually have deep shadows and blown highlights.
- Distortion and CA capture corrections: enable in-camera reductions of optical aberrations when using DA lenses.
- Sensor shift (covered in the section on Live View).
- Expanded DR: is now broken down into 2 adjustments: highlight adjustment, which continues to yield about 1 stop of adjustment to keep highlights from clipping, and also shadow adjustment, which has 3 settings. It appears highlight adjustment works the same as on the K20D in that it uses ISO 200 underexposing by 1 stop to retain the highlights, and then pushing the shadow curve to lighten it. This results in somewhat noisy shadows on the K20D but in midday light was the easiest way to come back with a usable image without spending a lot of time post processing (in theory this can be done in RAW conversion and yields similar results). I’ve found this mode useful on the K20D for midday snapshots/action shots, but wouldn’t recommend it for full time use because of the resultant shadow noise.
The custom menu system on the K-7 has been greatly enhanced. Although the number of custom functions remains similar, each custom function often has multiple settings, creating far more control-per-function than was found on previous models.
Some of the new custom functions include:
- Improved playback menu.
- Ability to save converted RAW files as TIFF (not just JPEG).
- Ability to trim video clips in camera.
- Remote release in bulb via the custom menu. The IR remote can trip the shutter on first press, and then close it on the second press. I haven’t tested this in an extremely long exposure but it seems to work well for 30 second to 1 minute exposures.This keeps the camera sealed and more stable for longer exposures, rather than having a cable release dangling in inclement or windy weather.
- The AF assist light can be toggled on and off. Previous Pentax SLRs required either an external flash or the pop up flash to be active to create AF assist even on cameras with assist lamps in the flash. The K-7 emits a green light which is about as annoying as any other AF assist lamp that is not IR based.
- High ISO noise controls are improved. You can select a starting ISO for noise reduction, as well as a level of reduction. ISO options start as low as ISO 200 (200, 400, 800, 1600) and noise reduction settings are medium (default), low, high and off.
- Added feature for white balance (auto) correction on tungsten light for strong and subtle correction.
Removed features and changes:
- The ability to turn the top LCD backlight on and off via an external button is removed. It is now on or off when the meter operates.
- The ability to turn bracketing on and off is now not a hard button but a menu option. The removal of this feature was initially disheartening to this reviewer since I often bracket for various reasons. However, because of the enhanced USER mode settings being sticky, which includes nearly every setting on the camera. I was able to dedicate the USER setting on the dial to auto bracketing in my preferred drive mode.
- Although not specifically a menu system issue, slightly disappointing is the fact that only the DA 35mm test lens had been somewhat sharp out of the lenses I tried. This included the DA 21, DA&42;, 50-135, Sigma EX 10-20, and FA 28-70. This isn’t a major issue because the camera does have a focus adjustment menu, where you can adjust your focus settings for individual lenses, and save those settings, but it should be something to note for those looking to take the camera for a spin out of the box. Ultimately, I had to calibrate every lens I used, while this was a pain, even the DA 35mm Limited benefited from a light tweaking of the auto focus calibration. Once calibrated, the settings for each lens are stored and automatically applied when you mount the lens.
The battery of the K-7 has changed from the K10/20 series. The K-7 no longer uses the DLI-50 battery, instead it uses a DLI-90. The DLI-90 is lighter and slightly smaller. The battery terminal has an additional 3rd contact, which I assume allows it to communicate more information to the camera than the DLI-50. The status of the battery of the K10D and K20D were long sore points among photographers—one minute the battery was full, the next it was at 2 bars, and a few shots later it showed “battery depleted” on the LCD.
One of the unsung strong points of the K10D/K20D and DLI-50 was the severely underrated battery life. Pentax official CIPA ratings were extemely conservative. As someone who has shot over 30,000 frames on the K10D/K20D with DLI-50, I rarely got under 500 frames per battery, and often over 700 including image review, live view and fill flash. In comparison, I have not been impressed with the battery life of the K-7. With the K10D/K20D I was able to shoot approximately 10-12GB of RAW images per battery, including fill flash and casual image review. In comparison, with the K-7 I struggled to go above 8GB (about 400 RAW images). It should be noted that the added features of the K-7 are probably responsible for some battery drain. For instance, in video mode the battery might be drained by the end of a 4GB card. The improved Live View mode and higher resolution screen should also have some impact on battery life because of increased usability. Overall, accounting for the increased features, the K-7 is still capable of a day’s shooting with ample use of the functions. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with less than 1 fully charged battery per day of shooting, along with a fully charged spare in the bag. The K-7 does have an optional battery grip that allows for AA batteries, or a second DLI-90 battery. There is a real advantage to using AA Lithiums for extreme cold weather photographers.
The K-7 is incrementally faster than previous Pentax models. However, because it is capable of additional in-camera correction, this speed can often be unaccounted for. As with the previous flagships, the K-7 has no appreciable lag from standby to shooting, shot to shot lag seems to be decreased, and while I normally don’t use or recommend Shake Reduction in action situations, the lag that I noticed in the K10D is now completely gone.
The K-7, like its predecessors, still has a slightly under-synced flash speed for a camera of this level. While the K-7 P-TTL hotshoe does support High Speed Sync as well as wireless flash control, the mechanical 1/180th of a second from a camera with a 100,000 actuation 1/8000th second shutter seems low. However, unlike many DSLRs in it’s price range, the K-7 does allow the on camera flash to control wireless P-TTL flash. The biggest downside of a low mechanical sync speed remains the inability to perform daylight sync. HSS is effective for short ranges, but requires a dedicated accessory flash. In addition, the lack of a higher mechanical sync speed means that RF radio flash transmitters have much less value.
CMOS and Shutter
Like the K20D, the K-7 features a 14.6MP Samsung CMOS but completely redesigned. There are significant improvements in low ISO moire as well as the ability to completely turn off dark frame subtraction. The K-7 also features multiple enhancement noise reduction levels. The fact that Pentax chose to not increase the megapixels should be considered a good thing. I was impressed with the improvements in dynamic range in the K-7 under typical shooting situations, but not impressed with higher ISO noise. The higher ISO noise could be a result of Pentax going to a 4-channel A/D converter, which allows for faster image processing, as well as the myriad of noise reduction settings, including turning off noise reduction. In short the added controls are probably a result of a more mature sensor design, and the increased controls add variability to the work flow, which may lead to differing opinions in the high ISO capabilities of the K-7.
The shutter on the K-7 is as robust as its predecessors, still rated to 100,000 cycles yet capable of higher shutter speeds. The biggest improvement is its silent operation. The K-7 shutter is almost silent in comparison to prior shutters, yet retains the robustness. Just by feel it also seems like there is less mirror slap, which should increase image sharpness at nominal shutter speeds. Along with lack of mirror slap, and a quiet shutter, the K-7 also has significantly less shutter blackout during rapid shooting. Overall, the shutter and mirror mechanism appears to be a vast improvement.
The K-7 LCD is 3 inches and 920,000 pixels, with a viewing angle of 170 horizontally and vertically. Specs aside, it is a major upgrade to the K20D screen. Viewing angle and resolution are now capable of utilizing the Live View fully. Furthermore, zooming in to check critical focus is now extremely accurate and clear at much higher magnifications. Even more impressive is the active orientation sensor. The K-7 screen rotates in Live View as well as when reviewing images, a useful feature for composing images from a camera mounted on a tripod’s inverted center column.
The K-7 maintains the ability to color calibrate the LCD that was initially introduced on the K20D. This allows photographers to have seamless color from capture to printing.
Live View and Sensor Shift
The Live View of the K20D was at times useful but never fully complete. Settings couldn’t be changed in Live View without exiting the Live View mode, and getting to Live View required setting the preview mode in the custom menus. The K-7 Live View now has a dedicated button that allows you to enter Live View while keeping either optical or digital preview assigned to the DOF preview switch. Initially, my thoughts, based on experience with the K20D Live View, were that the dedicated button was just to show off a new feature without any real purpose. Upon extensive use of the camera, I found that on a tripod the Live View is almost fully baked. Using the K-7 on a tripod with Live View is a landscape shooter’s dream. While on a tripod, I was able to compose using the on-screen grid, and adjust my focus at high magnification, all while never having a perfectly clear angle on the camera viewfinder. Additional features in live view mode include a live histogram, and highlight/shadow blinkies.
While shooting panoramas I was able to use the Live View as a pseudo mirror lockup, which was much more effective than Pentax’s 2-second mirror pre-fire, or even the somewhat unnecessary true MLU also found on the K-7 shooting modes menu. In Live View, the mirror is up, and the camera can fire multiple shots in succession without any gap without the mirror going back down. When shooting a panoramic this allowed me to shoot frame after frame without mirror vibration and without the time gaps caused by mirror pre-fire.
Additionally, the Live View mode can be used to auto bracket images without the mirror coming back down between images, a boon for HDR shooters, or landscapes photographers.
Included in the Live View functionality is composition adjustment via sensor shift. The K-7 is the first DSLR to feature in camera sensor shift, and is partially a byproduct of in camera Shake Reduction. The ability to shift a few millimeters will not allow you to abandon a shift lens, but it does work quite well for micro adjustments using the 100% view of the LCD in Live View. Shifting the sensor a millimeter or two is much more accurate than trying to adjust even the most precise tripod head. This again is another feature best appreciated with the camera securely locked down to a tripod.
AF Modes, Speed and Accuracy
In addition to the improved Live View, the K-7 has enhanced auto focus with the mirror up. The mirror up focus is contrast based and doesn’t require the mirror to drop to achieve focus, although it is slow at best even in good lighting. Expect the K-7 to take about 1-2 seconds in a well-lit environment using mirror up focusing. Enhancements include face detection and focus tracking. The K-7 can recognize up to 20 faces, and I found it to work pretty well. To use face detection you must select it in the K-7’s menu system. Unlike mirror down focus, the Live View mode doesn’t have limited focus points. This again can be extremely useful on a tripod when critical focus is required but can be difficult to use handheld because of the slow nature of the focus. I should note I often used this mode with the DA 35mm Limited Macro, which is not known as a fast AF lens but I didn’t really find the mirror up focus to be significantly faster with any lens I tried.
The K-7 has a beefed up auto focus setup in mirror down mode. Focus point array remains the same with 11 sensors, including 9 cross sensors but with an improved algorithm engine, including algorithm adjustments based on lighting temperatures.
Pentax auto focus has always been known for its accuracy but this comes at a price. The Pentax stutter focus confirmation often results in missed shots in AF-C. The K20D reduced this quite a bit, but the K-7 seems to have gone much further towards eliminating it. Nevertheless, the K-7 still isn’t quite as good as it could and should be while shooting in AF-C.
While in AF-S mode, the K-7 is quick and accurate. In single shot mode you will rarely, if ever, get an out of focus shot that isn’t user error. The camera focuses faster and in lower light than prior Pentax models. Early versions of the K-7 with factory firmware required pressing the OK button to select focus points. The first firmware update fixed this, and focusing with the K-7 using AF-S/AF-C with focus point select on and focus de-mapped from the shutter yielded excellent results on stationary subjects. A side advantage of using the K-7 in focus point select mode, post firmware update, is that the OK button now acts a Fn button. This prevents accidentally accessing camera menus.
Perhaps the biggest improvements to auto focus is the dedicated AF assist lamp. Previous models have always had some form of AF assist, unusually an obtrusive strobing of the on-camera flash, some had more subtle dedicated IR grids, but all were attached to the on-camera popup flash. The fact they were attached to the flash meant the flash would fire if not retracted before the shot. Essentially this made the AF assist useless. The dedicated green lamp means that the camera can focus in much lower light, but doesn’t require the flash to fire on the K-7.
The K-7 increases to 77 zones from its predecessors 16 zones. To be honest, in daylight shooting I didn’t see much difference in metering accuracy under real world shooting conditions. I found the camera to be pretty conservative in trending toward underexposure in bright conditions. This isn’t new to DSLRs, and because it seems relatively consistent, I don’t consider it to be a flaw or even a nuisance. Simply go +1/3 on the EV comp or manually add 1/3 stop when metering, or if shooting at low ISO just accept the slight underexposure and adjust in post process. Most likely DSLR makers are doing this to protect the highlights, and JPEG shooters will probably appreciate the exposure bias, while RAW shooters will find it initially annoying.
Overall, the additional metering zones don’t necessarily prove more accurate, and can often influence exposure of your subject to be less accurate. The spot meter on the K-7 was my favorite mode. The meter is accurate at evaluating tones, and the subjective nature of matrix metering was removed. The Pentax “Green” button is still prominent on the K-7—this button makes shooting in manual on a DSLR an absolute breeze. While spot metering for instance, set the aperture you need for proper depth of field, and simply point the spot meter at a midtone and press the green button. If you have your program shift setup properly in custom functions, it will adjust the shutter speed only for proper base exposure. No endless scrolling of the control wheels to get back to a base exposure—you can adjust from there with a few turns of the wheel.
The ability to maintain full control of the camera while having automation of key speed enhancements is far more important to the K-7 than the extra metering zones. While it is nice to see Pentax upping the specs in certain areas, it is good to see they haven’t lost sight of what is a strong point of the brand—ergonomics and efficiency.
Dynamic Range Expansion
In my K20D Review, I noted how the ISO expansion caused noise in shadow areas while doing a good job holding highlights (about 1 stop). It appears the K20D required ISO 200 to use dynamic range expansion because it underexposed the image and then pushed the shadows while writing the file. This likely was the cause of the noise in the shadow areas. The K-7 continues to require an ISO 200 base, but the menu options have included both shadow and highlight recovery. These modes offer increased control over the range expansion than before but range expansion, regardless of improvements, is still not a free lunch, and the K-7’s range expanded images typically seem a little lower in contrast and lack punch.
Filtration or waiting for better light will still yield better results, but the dynamic range expansion feature as with prior models is useful for on the fly shooting during less than optimal shooting in high contrast situations. Unless you pack your camera away for all but the golden hours, most photographers will appreciate the ability to squeeze an extra 1-2 stops out of a single shot.
The K-7 offers significantly improved noise reduction (NR) controls, allowing the user to blast the noise in camera or deal with it out of camera in post processing. My preferred method is post processing of RAW files so I tended to either turn the NR off, or set it to its lowest setting. At these settings I wasn’t impressed with the noise qualities of the K-7 in comparison to the K20D or even K10D. The shadows do seem slightly cleaner, but overall I didn’t notice an improvement, and if anything there was a slight decrease in high ISO shooting. However, it should be noted that that K-7 showed excellent detail at high ISO and processing the RAW files on the computer I was able to gain a very high quality compromise that included a high amount of detail. I believe the K-7, despite the 4 channel conversion and faster processing, is virtually on par with the K20D up to ISO 2500. Still, I would have like to have seen a bigger improvement.
The most compelling feature of the K-7 over the K20D is the ability to turn off dark frame subtraction for sequential long or night exposures.
The K-7 has a shooting range of ISO 100-3200 with a custom setting for ISO 6400. In color, I would be hard pressed to recommend shooting at 6400 in either RAW or JPEG, regardless of noise reduction settings. At lower ISOs, such as 800-1600, there may be incremental improvements, but in no way are the high ISO capabilities improved so much that it bears noting. As with the K10D and K20D the ISO sensitivity can be changed in 1/3 stop increments.
The K-7 has the same shooting modes as the K10D and K20D. These include the usual Green mode, P, Sv, Tv, Av, TAv, M, B, X, and of course the custom USER mode. New to the K-7 is the video mode. The mode selector dial on the K-7 locks out. This is somewhat annoying at times, occasionally it is appreciated. There have been many times my mode dial got moved just enough that it locked the camera out, causing some concern.
The Sv and TAv modes were unique to Pentax upon their release with the K10D. TAv is a shutter/aperture priority mode that uses the ability of a digital SLR to use ISO as a 3rd on-the-fly variable in exposure. The photographer sets shutter and aperture and the camera chooses the ISO to maintain the exposure. Sv is the opposite: the photographer sets the ISO and the camera selects the exposure values.
While most cameras have a “Green Mode” of some form, Pentax is the only company to take it to all modes. By no means does this Green Mode impede the photographers ability to make the decisions, however, it does make getting around the exposure matrix a bit easier. In any mode the photographer can press the K-7’s Green Button, and the camera will return to a base exposure based on the meter reading. This mode is effective in manual mode where it allows for rapidly going from aperture priority to shutter priority or anywhere in between. Pressing the Green Button will only affect the program line in priority modes (speed or depth). In manual mode the Green Button will only change the shutter or the aperture based what the photographer has chosen as a priority. Choosing f/2 in manual tells the camera that you are in aperture priority and it only changes the shutter speed to the base exposure. From that point you can either trust the meter, or adjust the shutter a little to vary exposure. Incredible simple and efficient way to shoot in manual.
The USER mode is a custom setting that allows the photographer to create a custom shooting mode. Virtually everything on the K-7 can be set in this mode and stored until needed. For instance, if you want to auto bracket at 2 stops, with a 2-second self timer at ISO 100, all you have to do is select the settings, and save to user. Anytime you want to use those settings simply select user and the camera is ready to shoot.
Besides the vastly improved Live View mode and USER mode, the most interesting new feature on the K-7’s shooting modes is the true “mirror-up mode” found in the drive menu. I found myself doubly perplexed by the inclusion of mirror lock-up (MLU) when mirror pre-fire has been shown to be equally effective and the Live View almost duplicates true MLU. However, while I didn’t find a specific use for it during the K-7 test, I did think of many instances when a screen-off with mirror-up would be useful. Photographing macro foliage or flowers with even a slight breeze, or photographing landscapes on a shoreline or mountain top and waiting for the wind to die down for just a second to get the shot that is already set-up. Often firing the 2-second pre-fire just as the wind dies down means you get the shot during another burst of wind.
For JPEG shooters who like to minimize time post processing on the computer, the K-7’s in-camera HDR mode will prove to be an interesting feature. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the images, which are derived from 3 JPEGs but I also didn’t find them disturbingly poor. It’s unfortunate that the HDR mode cannot record RAW+JPEG, which would allow advanced photographers to utilize the in-camera HDR for immediate use, as well as have a copy of the RAW files for later conversion in a program like Photomatix Pro. Additionally, the K-7’s in-camera HDR feature still requires a tripod, and it isn’t particularly fast. Expect your camera to be idle for about 10-15 seconds while the HDR is created. This seems to be a feature that would get more use on the K2000 or K-x.
While talking about the in-camera HDR ability, I should note one of the nice features on the K-7 (as well as prior top tier Pentax DSLRs) is the 2-stop bracket ability, which is extremely useful for creating high quality HDR images. Many cameras priced at or below this level lack this feature making shooting properly spaced HDR brackets much more work.
A lot of the feature improvements of the K-7 seem to be best enjoyed with the camera on a tripod, but the K-7 also is significantly faster when shooting action than prior flagship DSLRs. The K-7 loses the 21 frames per second (1.6MP) HD burst mode, but becomes the first Pentax DSLR to exceed 5 fps at native resolution.
The camera can officially record 15 RAW per burst at 5.3 fps, or 40 JPEG. Dropping the frame rate to 3.3 fps the camera can record 17 RAW or unlimited JPEG.
In the real world, using a Sandisk Extreme III SD card, which guarantees write speeds of 20Mb/s, the K-7 was able to write to the card fast enough that it didn’t fill the buffer for about 3 to 5 additional shots. I was able to get about 18-20 shots at 5.3 fps in RAW.
Because the K-7 is capable of in-camera distortion and aberration corrections with DFA and DA lenses, the camera can be slowed quite a bit shooting RAW with these corrections on, as well as the buffer being reduced. The first time this happened I thought something was wrong with the camera, but it appears that these corrections cannot be turned on if you are shooting action. Fortunately, there is rarely a reason to have this level of in-camera correction of a RAW file when shooting action.
I wonder if the 21 fps burst mode of the K20D wasn’t really the first HD video on a DSLR. I never quite found a use for it on the K20D, but the HD video on the K-7 certainly will impress at this stage of the video in the DSLR game. While Pentax doesn’t solve all the problems of single CMOS video capture with the K-7, including rolling shutter artifacts, it has built a solid foundation for video capture on future models.
The highlights of the K-7’s video capture are the stereo sound, 30fps at 16:9 720P, and the ability to add an auxiliary microphone.
Many video-capable DSLRs lack the ability to add a secondary microphone, which is a major problem since the in camera microphone will often pick up internal sounds from the camera, including SR. Another huge advantage the K-7 is the ability to use manual focus film lenses. Since the K-7 allows the photographer to set aperture manually, and since the SR is sensor based, legacy lenses include almost full video capture functionality.
The downsides of the video mode include the inability to auto focus at all once capture has begun, a shortcoming that can be frustrating. I have never shot video without the ability to auto focus, and I found it difficult to do so with large aperture lenses with moving subjects. The larger sensor of a DSLR paired with a large aperture lens allows for much more creative video, but also creates narrow focus that must be maintained with a relatively small LCD, while holding a camera that is designed for optimal control for a still photographer. This isn’t an issue constrained to Pentax, it is a failure of the SLR design format that is endemic to all of the major camera manufacturers.
While the K-7 native 16:9 resolution is 720p, the camera actually can record 1080p-equivalent in 3:2 format at 30 fps.
The most concerning issue I saw with the K-7 while shooting video was that the sensor tended to overheat in live view and video mode. This wasn’t a problem in cold weather or even cool weather, but in mid-summer the overheating symbol appeared within 5-10 minutes. Also, the battery seemed barely capable of filling a 4GB Sandisk Extreme III before emptying.
The K-7 improved shake reduction (SR) by being the first Pentax DSLR to offer a 3rd axis of sensor rotation. As with previous reviews, it should be noted that SR effectiveness is highly variable among photographers, although at this point it is widely accepted that both lens based and sensor based mechanisms are effective and have slight advantages and disadvantages over the other. As with previous models, expect the K-7 to yield about 2-3 stops on average, with Pentax claiming a maximum of 4 stops. The additional axis of rotation should yield an improvement in wide angle lens stabilization with lenses like the DA 15mm, DA 14mm, and DA 10-17mm seeing the most benefit.
The K-7 sacrifices a bit of magnification to offer 100% FOV in the viewfinder. This is a feature that wasn’t particularly important when shooting film since mounted slides didn’t give you 100% of the frame in the printing or viewing process. With digital you have the ability to print 100% of the captured image if you choose. Having 100% viewfinder coverage is a nice feature, but it could be argued that when using the viewfinder some photographers would rather have the extra magnification. Of course, you can always turn on the LCD for 100% coverage, and with the sensor shift, getting those pesky distractions out of the frame edges is almost too easy.
The first time you use the K-7 dust removal system it’s evident it is redesigned. Gone is the old “clunk” where the sensor literally shook using the SR system. The DRII system uses a high frequency vibration of the low pass filter. I never found dust to be problematic on the K10D or K20D, but the K-7’s removal mechanism seems significantly improved—so improved that during my time with the K-7 I only had to use a blower on the sensor on 2 occasions.
Most photographers shooting the K-7 will probably be shooting RAW format and not particularly concerned with critical white balance (WB) at time of exposure. However, with the addition of video and JPEG-only modes on the K-7, WB takes on a new importance. The K-7 adds two additional WB modes, including a CTE mode for sunsets. I found the WB to be generally good, and an improvement over the K20D WB. I really didn’t notice any troublesome situations where the white balance failed. For those with critical in-camera white balance needs, the K-7 maintains the WB fine tuning found on previous models.
Overall Image Quality
Subjectively, from ISO 100-200 the K-7 is somewhat superior to the K20D. Images are cleaner, they lack some of the annoying moire and shadow noise found in the K20D images when scrutinized very carefully. While I found the K20D images at low ISO very good, I always felt the K20D sensor was inconsistent, and I never got a good feel for it. In fact, I felt that the K10D sensor was actually somewhat better overall than the K20D sensor for those reasons, and it is why I continue to refer to the K10D in this review. The K-7, however, yielded consistent images while shooting at 100-200. From 200-400 it seemed on par with the K20D if not slightly better, and from 400-640 it remained on par. Above 800 I felt there was a small drop off. The images were cleaner in the shadows and lacked the banding of the K10D, but it wasn’t clearly better than the K20D, which when properly exposed at time of exposure, yielded clean detailed results to ISO 2500.
Purely based on the image quality at various ISO settings, the K-7 isn’t going to be a high ISO shooters dream camera using available light. However, it will certainly please studio and landscape photographers, as well as daylight action sports shooters.
Menu system, Custom Functions and Digital filters
One of the biggest software-based additions to the K-7 is the distortion and aberration correction. This feature only works with DA and DFA lenses, of which Pentax knows the levels of distortion and how to precisely correct better than 3rd parties. I found this feature to be a great time saver when shooting landscapes and panoramas. I could import the images into my stitching program of choice and forget about distortion correction in post processing. As noted in the burst speed section, the lens corrections come at a cost of frame rate, and shouldn’t be used when high frame rate is required.
Compared to other Pentax models
The Pentax K-7 is clearly the top of the current line. It offers sealing, rugged metal build, speed, high level of customization, extreme portability and professional control layout.
Cameras such as the K-x and K2000 offer big bang for the buck, while cameras like the K200D and K20D offer rugged weather sealed bodies (although polycarbonate over stainless steel), proven sensors, high image quality, and excellent customization. In addition the K20D has slightly better overall high ISO performance, while the K200D has AA battery support. Both the K20D and K200D are built on the same chassis and with similar build quality to the K10D, a camera that has made several unmanned space flights enduring extreme temperatures, moisture and gforces, and parachuted back to earth. No doubt while neither is quite as elegant as the K-7, they are both extremely durable and rugged.
In terms of new features found on the K-7, the K-x shares the most with the K-7, including 720P video, HDR capture, and near 5 fps image capture. The K-x, however, only has a 5 RAW buffer at 5 fps and only supports AA batteries. Possibly due to the slightly less densely packed sensor, the K-x offers ISO 12,800, and potentially better high ISO performance as a result. For off-the-grid shooting, the K-x is capable of capturing three times as many images per set of batteries.
Compared to Nikon, Canon and Olympus
Prior to the K-7, the Olympus E-3 was the only metal bodied, fully weather-sealed DSLR on the market for under $1500. The K10D and K20D were great values, costing hundreds less than anything comparable, but not quite on par with that level of build. Things like the shutter, frame rate, and body materials made those cameras just slightly inferior even if only in specification. Compared to the E-3, the K-7 has a larger sensor, better high ISO performance and higher resolution at low ISO, a better viewfinder, larger and significantly higher resolution screen, as well as being smaller and lighter.
Compared to Nikon, the K-7 fits between the D90 and the current D300s. Price and size make it closer to the D90, but the specifications and build quality put it much closer to the D300s. The frame rate of the K-7 is a little below the D300’s 7 fps, yet very acceptable for an all around camera. The K-7 has more pixels, and native ISO 100 versus the D300s native ISO 200. Both are weather sealed, but the K-7 has a higher level of sealing. The D300s is significantly larger and 6 ounces more hefty. A benefit of the D300s size is that it has dual card slots. The D300s shoots 720p at 24 fps, while the K-7 shoots 720p at 30 fps, and does support 1080i at 30 fps in 3:2 format. Unlike the D90 both the K-7 and the D300s have auxiliary microphone jacks. One area the D300s clearly is superior is the flash sync at 1/250th vs. the 1/180th of the K-7.
Compared to Canon, the K-7 falls between the T1 and the 7D. The Canon 7D is about $300 more than the Pentax K-7 and it is Canon’s lowest-priced sealed camera, it’s also about the same size as the Nikon D300s. The Canon 7D has a higher frame rate than the K-7, but the buffer is actually smaller. Canon has for some time been the gold standard in auto focus technology, and this is an area that the K-7 is outclassed by the 7D. Once again the only real comparison to the lower end Canon T1 is the cost and size. Handling lower-end Canons and a Pentax side-by-side leaves no comparison in build quality.
The K-7 is a definite buy for a Pentax shooter looking to replace an aging flagship. It has a huge hardware upgrade, and while IQ difference between the K-7 and K20D aren’t tremendous, it is improved in many areas including long exposure and image capture control. Beyond that the K-7 offers HD video with an auxiliary mic input, it’s more compact, and faster than its predecessors. It also should prove more durable long-term with a magnesium alloy body vs. the previous flagships’ polycarbonate shells. The K-7 is the first camera that is fitting of having a FA/DA Limited lens mounted to it. No, it’s not quite a digital MX or LX but it’s the closest Pentax has come to date.
For non-Pentax shooters, the K-7 should be appealing because it is lower priced than similar cameras from other manufacturers, built better and better sealed, and Pentax DA&42; lenses are sealed to match, and Pentax Limited prime lenses are compact to match. The K-7 is about 20-25% smaller than the competition, making it ideal for travel and adventure photography. The K-7 also has in-body stabilization with multi-axis rotation, which allows for stabilization of wide angle and macro lenses not possible from either Nikon or Canon. This means that building a system for the K-7 can be done cheaply and with a lot of the modern features that are offered by DSLR technology.
Where to Buy
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